Saturday, April 26, 2008

Sesame Noodles with Stir-fried Tofu and Vegetables

My friend John recently passed me a wonderful recipe from Cook's Country Magazine for grilled chicken with sesame noodles, which hit the dual bullseye of being both easy to make and extremely good. Cold sesame noodles make a great dinner on a warm spring or summer evening. They can be topped with different meat and veggie combinations, eaten plain as either a main course or a side, and I'm sure leftovers would make and excellent lunch (if you have any leftovers that is - I haven't). This particular recipe gets the flavor just right with a sauce that perfectly blends salty, sweet, spicy, and peanut-y tastes...sounds good right?

The second time I made this recipe, I decided to go the vegetarian route, with excellent results. Topped with stir-fried tofu, and crunchy, colorful red peppers, carrots, and snow peas, this dish is full of healthy fats and protein, and bursting with flavor - a real winner.

Usually I'm all about mise en place, but I'm comfortable prepping ingredients as I go along with this one, as timing is not too crucial. Just rinse all your veggies before you start and put a large pot of water on to boil and you'll be fine. So go ahead and mince the garlic and ginger, then combine it in a bowl with the soy sauce, rice vinegar, hot sauce, brown sugar, and sesame oil, then whisk everything to combine. Set aside 3 tablespoons of the sauce for later use.

Cut the carrots, red pepper, and tofu, then toss them together with the snow peas and the 3 tablespoons of sauce.

Puree the rest of the sauce with the peanut butter in a blender until smooth.

Put your noodles in the boiling water and slice the scallions while the noodles boil.

Drain the noodles, rinse them with cold water, and then drain them well. Toss the noodles in a large bowl with the pureed sauce and the scallions. If you are not going to be serving for a while, place the noodles in the fridge, just remember to take them out about 15 minutes before you're ready to eat so that they are not ice cold.

Heat the oil over high heat in a wok style pan until it is shimmering. Add the tofu and vegetables and stir-fry for a few minutes, until the vegetables are just tender. Place about 1/4 of the noodles in a bowl and top them with the stir-fried tofu and vegetables.

Here's a picture of the alternative, non-veggie version with chicken. Just marinate some boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 1/2 pounds) in the separate 3 tablespoons of sauce, then grill them, slice them, and serve them on top of the noodles.


Sesame Noodles with Stir-fried Tofu and Vegetables (adapted from Cook's Country Magazine)
About 30 minutes - Serves 4
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons of minced ginger
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons hot sauce (I use Frank's Red Hot)
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
  • 1/4 cup peanut butter (I suggest a sugar-free, salt-free peanut butter)
  • 1 package of extra-firm tofu (12 to 16 ounces), cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 cups of snow peas
  • 1 large red pepper, cut into matchstick size strips
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into matchstick size strips
  • 6 scallions (green part only), sliced thin
  • 1 pound Asian noodles (I suggest buckwheat soba noodles)
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • salt
  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil
  2. Whisk the garlic, ginger, soy sauce, rice vinegar, hot sauce, brown sugar, and sesame oil in a small bowl, separate 3 tablespoons of sauce and set it aside
  3. Toss the 3 tablespoons of sauce with the tofu, snow peas, red pepper, and carrot
  4. Puree the rest of the sauce with the peanut butter in a blender until smooth
  5. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt to the boiling water, toss in the noodles, and boil according to package instructions
  6. Slice the scallions
  7. Drain the noodles, rinse them with cold water, and then drain them again
  8. Toss the cooled and drained noodles with the pureed peanut sauce and the scallions (refrigerate if you're not going to serve right away)
  9. Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a wok-style pan over high heat
  10. When the oil is shimmering, add the tofu and vegetables and stir-fry until just tender, about 4 minutes
  11. Separate the noodles into 4 bowls and top each with 1/4 of the stir-fried tofu and vegetables

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Global Warming - It's What's for Dinner

Happy Earth Day everybody! I wouldn't be much of a biology teacher if I didn't try to make everybody a little more aware of global warming, our looming ecological disaster. What's the problem? Basically, humans have been releasing, and continue to release at ever increasing rates, various greenhouse gases into the Earth's atmosphere. These gases strengthen the natural greenhouse effect responsible for keeping the Earth warm enough to support life. This means that more heat is trapped in the atmosphere which in turn heats the Earth. The consequences of global warming are far reaching and will profoundly affect all human societies over the next 100 years (and beyond). At this point the only thing we can do is reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we release into the atmosphere and hope it's enough as we've already committed ourselves to at least some degree of warming in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, reducing our emissions is hardly the trend. What's this have to do with food? Check out these tasty articles:

Treading Lighter with Low Carbon Diets - "The global food and agriculture system produces about one-third of humanity's contribution to greenhouse gases. So qu estions about food are shifting from the familiar " Is this good for me?" or "Will it make me fat?" to "Is it good for the planet?""

Killer Cow Emissions - "All told, livestock are responsible for 18% of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide, according to the U.N. -- more than all the planes, trains and automobiles on the planet. And it's going to get a lot worse."

Currently, we are all a part of the problem. Will we change our ways before it's too late? We'll see.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Creamy Cheesy Scrambled Eggs

I was never satisfied with my ability to make scrambled eggs. I tried adding milk or water to the eggs, cooking them in butter or bacon fat, with and without cheese, scrambling them in the pan rather than in a bowl, but the end result was invariably disappointing. If I was making eggs, they were gonna be fried or omelets because I could do those much better. Despite my low scrambled egg self esteem, I'd still try to make a batch every once and a while and with a little inspiration from Alton Brown, finally came up with something pretty good. Alton was making scrambled eggs over a double boiler using very gentle heat and stirring quite a bit resulting in tender, creamy looking eggs. I wasn't ready to go the double boiler route, but I tried lower heat and a bit more stirring than I usually do. The result? My wife regularly asks me for "cheesy scrambles", which has supplanted the omelet as her most requested breakfast.

This technique for making scrambled eggs takes about 10 minutes total and results in eggs that are so tender and creamy that you can literally spread them on toast, which is what I usually do. Scramble the eggs and add them to a cold, nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray. Place the skillet over medium-low heat. Tear a few slices of American cheese into small pieces and scatter the pieces over the egg (I like using Land O Lakes white American cheese, but any white deli-sliced American would probably suffice - just don't use individually wrapped singles which have a weird flavor, a gross plastic texture, and make me nervous just thinking about all that unnecessary packaging). A few grinds of black pepper and you're ready to give the whole thing a stir.

At this point you let them set for a few seconds then give the eggs a good stir. Continue this pattern of setting and stirring until the eggs begin to form small curds. Keep stirring all the eggs to the middle of the pan and chopping them up with the spatula. The eggs are done when they are all pretty much set and just glistening slightly. I suggest spreading them on some good toasted and lightly buttered bread (or english muffins, bagels, etc).


Creamy Cheesy Scrambled Eggs
About 10 minutes - Serves 2
  • 4 eggs
  • 3 slices white American cheese
  • fresh ground black pepper
  • cooking spray
  1. Scramble the eggs in a small bowl
  2. Coat a medium nonstick skillet with cooking spray
  3. Pour the eggs into the skillet and set it over medium-low heat
  4. Tear the cheese into small pieces and scatter it over the egg
  5. Grind pepper over the eggs (I use about 6 twists on my pepper grinder which is a little over 1/8 of a teaspoon)
  6. Stir to combine everything, the cheese should start to melt a bit as you stir
  7. Allow the eggs to set for about 30 seconds, then stir very well, continue this process
  8. As the eggs begin to cook, stir them towards the center of the pan and chop them into bits with your spatula - the idea is to not have any large curds of egg
  9. When the eggs are chopped into uniform consistency and just slightly glistening, they are done, serve immediately

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Simple Tomato Sauce

A nice bowl of spaghetti with a simple tomato sauce, some good quality fresh grated cheese, and a few slices of crusty, chewy Italian bread. Many meals might equal this one, but when properly made, with quality ingredients, none can top it. Making tomato sauce can be a very personal thing, and anybody who has had any experience with Italian cooking (or Italian grandmothers) knows how subjective the business of sauce making can be. Onions or no onions? Meat or no meat? Fresh tomatoes or canned tomatoes? Wine? Sugar? Grated carrot? Oregano? Basil? So many options, and everybody has there own definitive rules. My father never put onions in his sauce, so to me, putting onions in sauce seems like heresy and I feel a little guilty whenever I do it (and my brother Dan would scream at me if he saw me). I grew up eating my father's sauce, which almost always contained both meatballs and Italian sausage. His sauce made such a strong impression on me that I still compare all others to it and I've never had another that tastes exactly like it.

My wife doesn't eat meatballs or Italian sausage, and my dad's sauce without the meat just isn't the same. I had to find something else. Most non-meat sauces that I made were either lacking in flavor, too tomato-y, or too sweet. I'd eat them, but I wasn't satisfied. Eventually I found the cure to my meat sauce malady with this Simple Tomato Sauce recipe from A Hunger Artist. There are a few things I really like about this recipe. First is the short list of ingredients. There's nothing fancy here, just a perfect blend of fruity olive oil, good quality tomatoes, pungent garlic, and fresh, fragrant basil. Second is the quick cooking time, only about 20 minutes from start to finish, although you'd never know it from the taste. But the real special trick about this recipe is that you puree the whole thing either in a blender or with an immersion blender. This emulsifies the sauce, so despite the large amount of olive oil, the sauce never separates and does not have that oil slick floating on top of the tomato that an non-emulsified sauce would have. It also has the added effect of turning the sauce a bright reddish-orange color that's sure to elicit oohs (and possibly ahhs as well). To me (highly subjective comment coming), this is the perfect condiment for a bowl of spaghetti. Save the meat sauce for the rigatoni (or the ziti, penne, cavatelli...).

Start by heating the oil. I add about 1/2 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes because I like both the flavor and the little kick that it adds. It's a lot of olive oil, but remember, olive oil is loaded with heart-healthy unsaturated fats, which raise good cholesterol levels. As long as you are not eating this sauce with large amounts of saturated fats (like tons of meat or cheese) you're golden. The overall effect on your cholesterol is even better if the pasta you choose is whole wheat. Okay, I'm off the soapbox now, add the garlic and fry it in the oil for about 2 minutes, until it just begins to lightly brown. If the garlic burns the sauce will be bitter, so be careful here.

Stir in the tomatoes and bring the sauce to a simmer. Simmer it gently for 10 minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat and add the salt and basil.

Using either an immersion blender or a blender, puree the sauce until it is smooth. If you're using a blender, you'll have to do it in batches. And be careful not to overfill the blender when pureeing hot liquids or you may have a mess! As far as saucing the pasta, I think that a ratio of 3 to 1 (cups to pounds) works well. So to sauce 1/2 pound of spaghetti, use 1 1/2 cups of sauce. Drain the spaghetti well then add it back to the pot, add 1/2 cup of sauce and stir. The spaghetti should be very lightly coated with sauce. Separate the spaghetti into 2 bowls and top with the remaining sauce (1/2 cup each). Top with fresh grated cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano are excellent choices) and maybe a little fresh ground black pepper.

Now, Mario Batali would almost certainly disagree with the amount of sauce I've recommended, but I like to have a lot left in the bowl for mopping up with some nice Italian bread. When I don't have any bread to go with the pasta, I would decrease the sauce to pasta ratio to 2 cups to 1 pound.


Simple Tomato Sauce (adapted from A Hunger Artist)
About 20 minutes - Makes enough sauce for 2 to 4 lbs of pasta depending on how saucy you like it
  • 2 1/2 cans (28 oz each) of whole plum tomatoes (preferably from San Marzano) or 2 cans if you can find 35 oz cans
  • 6 ounces extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 12 leaves of fresh basil, torn into large pieces
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  1. Heat the oil and the red pepper flakes over medium heat until the oil begins to shimmer, about 4 minutes
  2. Add the garlic and fry for 1 to 2 minutes, until lightly browned and fragrant
  3. Stir in the tomatoes and bring to a simmer
  4. Simmer for 10 minutes
  5. Remove pot from heat and stir in salt and basil
  6. Puree the sauce until smooth
This makes a large pot of sauce. If you are not cooking 2 to 4 pounds of pasta, it freezes beautifully. Just portion it out into individual containers (I like to freeze it in 1 1/2 cup portions) and freeze. When you're ready to use it, defrost it overnight in the refrigerator and reheat gently in a small saucepan. Just don't let the sauce boil when reheating or it might separate.

Another satisfied customer...

This dish is my first submission to Presto Pasta Nights, a site run by Ruth of Once Upon a Feast. Check out the awesome blog of June 7 - 12 host Kevin, Closet Cooking.